Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Hit Somebody...?

I had started jotting some thoughts about all the questionable hits lately at work today before even seeing the weekly challenge posted so evidently we have a Hlog mind-meld going on. I will admit up front that this will most likely be very long and a little jumbled. I started it while surrounded by miserable 6th graders and finished it at 1:15 in the morning so it's probably not the most sensical thing I've ever written...

So Chris Simon got 25 games, including the post-season, for his attempted decapitation of Ryan Hollweg. Bravo, NHL for finally getting your collective head out of your collective ass and handing out more than the standard 3 games. I applaud you and while there is more than a little sarcasm involved here, I'm mostly relieved.

I'm not really convinced that Simon's offense was 23 games worse than Cam Janssen's hit on Tomas Kaberle. (Note: Despite being one of the Sabres' reps around here - or maybe because of it - I'm going to mostly put Chris Neil's hit on Chris Drury to the side. While I personally had some problems with both the hit (tough to watch the play in front of you and the guy coming up behind you) and some of the aftermath (a player's helmet being done up incorrectly doesn't excuse a guy from making a questionable hit), I do think Neil's hit is a little more debatable than Janssen's and Simon's.) I understand that Simon used his stick as a weapon which is a huge no-no, but Janssen, in my opinion, was clearly using his body as a weapon when he hit Kaberle. He hit him extremely late, he hit him way behind the play, he hit him in the head while jumping into it. He put Kaberle out of the game and possibly out for the season. If a player hits an opponent in the face with a stick it's an automatic penalty, regardless of intent. If a player draws blood with his stick, it's an automatic double minor, again regardless of intent. It's understood that a player is expected to be in control of his stick. So why shouldn't a player be expected to use his body responsibly as well? I would even go as far as to say I can atleast kind of sort of understand where Simon was coming from. He thought he was the victim of a bad hit and it pissed him off. He completely lost his temper. It doesn't excuse his reaction but I'm not going to pretend I've never wanted to slug someone during a heated moment in competition before. Janssen's hit seemed more premeditated - he was in complete control of himself the entire time.

I read an editorial about the three recent situations (Neil on Drury, Janssen on Kaberle, Simon on Hollweg) that quoted a 2004 essay by Ken Dryden. (For anyone unfamiliar with Ken Dryden he's a former Canadiens goalie, former president of the Maple Leafs, and considered by many to be one of the most respected and articulate former players.) Dryden denounced blindside hits and hits to the head and tossed aside the oft-quoted idea of "finishing your check." He opined that hitting a player after he's released the puck has the potential to cause too many dangerous injuries. Dryden also considers it a handicap for players smart enough and quick enough to move the puck before being hit and a reward for players too slow to get to a puck carrier while he still has the puck. (I don't know if I agree entirely with that but it is an interesting point. In two of the three recent situations it was the more skilled player who ended up leaving the game.) Dryden's essay helped inspire some rule changes in the Ontario Hockey League. This season all hits to the head - elbow, shoulder, intentional or not - were outlawed and called for a penalty.

Former players seem unhappy about the idea of taking any more physicality out of the game. Brett Hull recently said, "It's a physical game and finishing your check is how you make a guy give up a puck." But there also seems to be a strong feeling that players today don't respect each other on the ice the way they used to. To the above comments, Hull added that he would warn players that he was behind them when he chased them into the corners. Rob Ray does intermission and postgame commentary for the Sabres' broadcasts. In his playing days he would hit anything that moved but he was really upset by Janssen's hit on Kaberle, calling it unnecessary and stating that it showed a tremendous lack of respect for Kaberle's well-being. But how do you make a guy respect other people? Is that even possible?

I don't know. There's a lot to think about, a lot of different layers. But as a fan, I'm a little scared. I'm a little scared that it's just a matter of time before a player hits the ice and doesn't get up whether it's because of paralysis or death. Maybe I'm overreacting, maybe I'm being "girly" but it's true. If I were in charge of the league, here's what I would do:

1. Take a close look at equipment.
I think it's clear that shoulder pads in particular can be lethal. The equipment needs to be safe for the person wearing it AND the person playing against him. And as much as I hate that many people responded to Neil's hit on Drury by blaming Drury for his helmet coming off, there are way too many guys wearing their chinstraps halfway down their chests. I don't know how you go about doing it, but make those boys tighten those up. I'm afraid the hockey community has gotten a little immune to concussions because they've become so common, but geez, they can be serious! If they're bad enough, then we're not just talking about a player's on-ice future. We're talking about his quality of life long after his hockey career is over.

2. Illegalize all hits to the head.
I don't care if it's an elbow, a shoulder, or a knee, if you hit a guy in the head you should be penalized. I'm at the point now where I would probably support a policy something like the OHL is using. If you hit a guy in the head, intentional or not, a penalty is called. All hits penalized are then later reviewed to see if more serious discipline needs to follow. If guys aren't going to respect each other on the ice by choice then something else has to be done to make them think about what they're doing out there.

3. Set up a firm, consistent policy for headshots.
I hate the way league discipline leaves us all scratching our heads. When fans are seriously talking about the guy in charge of discipline spinning a wheel and going with whatever the wheel lands on, you have a problem. The player's name shouldn't be a factor - big stars and little grinders should be punished the same way. Past offenses should be a factor. If someone is being suspended for hitting a guy in the head for the third time, by all means crank up the level of punishment. Where some people seem to disagree is whether the severity of injury should be factored in. I don't think it should. Just because Ryan Hollweg walked away in one piece, it doesn't mean the next guy will. If you're not throwing the book at people, there IS going to be a next time.

4. Fire Gary Bettam and Colin Campbell.
Hey, it's what I'D do.


Elly said...

You bring up some very good points, and I just wanted to comment on a few of them:
1. Equipment should definitely be standardized, although I would like to see it be done in a way that let's the players be as original as they want to be. I know that they already have some good guidelines set in place, and that players can customize their sticks and skates and such, but the helmets are what I would like to see enforced more. I'm also a big advocate of mouthguards and visors because they are such simple things that might mean the difference between losing a tooth...or an eye. I think it was Alberts on the Bruins that just got back from a lucky hit in the face with a puck. He wore a visor for a few games and then took it right off again. If he had one on in the first place, he wouldn't have been hurt, and I know that it's a personal choice and it distorts their vison a bit, but....well, I'd rather see a bit of acclimation than someone lose their sight. Some of the best players wear them, and if they can, so can the other guys.

2. Absolutely. And to branch into your third point, I think one of the reasons there is so much irritation over penalties and such is because it isn't consistant. People make a big fuss over being punished for things when others don't...like the Ovechkin hit earlier this year. He got fined, but no suspension. Why was Janssen more severely penalized? Why Simon? I know that the answer to those questions can be told in severity of the hit, but they all did damage to another player in what appeared to be an intentional way.

Sometimes it's meant to hurt...and sometimes it's just hockey. It's a rough sport, they all know that, as do we, the fans, but it is always unnerving to see someone drop to the ice from a nasty punch in a fight, or from a hard check into the boards. A strict rule on headshots would help to clear some of that up, or at least make it clear as to what will happen if someone ventures near the head during play.

Wow, I just rambled. Eek!

Elly said...

P.S. And yes, I'd fire Bettman too, although if he had a big part in the Pens staying in Pittsburgh, I might let him take a vacation before I did it.

Heather B. said...

elly, I didn't think about visors because I had headshots on my mind, but I wouldn't mind seeing them become required as well. I know there are some players who are really against that but the game is so much faster and harder now that it wouldn't take much for someone to lose an eye.

I think Bettman had a lot to do with the Sabres staying in Buffalo back when the Rigas family (former ownership) was arrested and declared bankruptcy, but it's been a few years so the goodwill has worn off ;-)

Sherry said...

4. Fire Gary Bettam and Colin Campbell.

Amen, sister.